Sharing a few grave insights

October 26, 2022

In Detroit’s Woodmere Cemetery, there are about 200,000 people — all with their own stories. To share some of these and teach local history, Professor Emeritus Ron Stockton, a noted graveyard researcher, wants to take you on a tour.

Photo of Professor Emeritus Ron Stockton speaking at a cemetery tour at Woodmere on Oct. 21, 2022.
Professor Emeritus Ronald Stockton leads a tour of Woodmere Cemetery. Photos by Sarah Tuxbury

A few miles away from UM-Dearborn there’s a nearly 155-year-old place where communities come together. There are historic heroes and villains, the rich and poor, immigrants and founding families, trailblazers and followers.

All silent, except for a few words marked in stone.

In Detroit’s Woodmere Cemetery, there are about 200,000 people — all with their own stories. To share some of these narratives and teach local history,  Political Science Professor Emeritus Ron Stockton, a noted graveyard researcher, takes students there annually.

“This is not a single community, but a mosaic of diversity in terms of nations, cultures and even religions,” he said. “I share stories about specific people or stones to contextualize it. We need to move beyond seeing cemeteries as these frightening places with dead people. It’s a place where people who shaped our community reside together.”

UM-Dearborn’s Reporter joined Stockton earlier this month as he took Honors Program students on a tour of the cemetery. Here are a few of the stories that he shared.

Woodmere Cemetery

Best laid plans don’t always come to fruition, even when made by multi-millionaires.

For many Michiganders, the name Vernors brings forth memories of the beloved bubbly ginger drink. The man behind it, James Vernor, Sr. was the first licensed pharmacist in the state and originally created his beverage, like many carbonated drinks in the 1800s, as a medical treatment. He sold it out of his Woodward Avenue pharmacy. Lucky for him, it was tasty — and it made him rich.

He was so rich that he bought a large plot of land in Woodmere and commissioned a statue that’s dedicated to his family. Both his and wife’s family name, Smith, are etched in the side of the monument that marks the plot. James Vernor, Sr. died in 1927 at age 84 and is buried there. A few family members are also there — including his wife, daughter and a grandson. But others, like his son, chose a different final resting place to be with a partner, and other family members moved away entirely.

“In those days, people who were millionaires thought they were going to create a dynasty. It was common to think they’d have generations of family who’d all stay in one place, run the family business and want to be buried together,” Stockton said. “It doesn’t quite work that way. Your children grow up, move to California and want to create their own dynasties. So it didn’t go to plan, but I’m glad he was a bit grand in his thinking — the people who walk around Woodmere benefit. That statue really is a magnificent sight.”

Woodmere Cemetery

Markers play an important role in memorializing historic events.

There are five red-tinted markers flush with the ground in the northeast section of Woodmere Cemetery. These are the stones of men — Joe York, Curtis Williams, Coleman Leny, Joe DeBlasi and Joe Bussell — killed during the March 1932 Ford Hunger March. 

Here’s a little background: When the Great Depression hit, there were no social programs and the banks in Detroit permanently closed and took people’s life savings.Unemployed auto workers and their families were suffering. They appealed to their former boss Henry Ford — one of the richest men in the world — to listen and help. [To learn more, check out The Detroit History podcast episode “The Ford Hunger March,” produced by Communication Professor Tim Kiska.]

“You need to remember that Henry Ford was the Elon Musk of his day. His company might not have been making a lot of money at that time, but he was in a position to help and these people were desperate,” Stockton said. “They marched in peace. But Henry's tough guy Harry Bennett went out, shot into the crowd and killed these men. Four died at the march, a fifth was transported to the hospital where he later died. It was horrible. But what happened there did eventually help lead to changes in employment practices.”

Stockton said there’s an interesting story about Curtis Williams, who was Black, and his stone: He didn’t have one until the early 1990s.

“Curtis’ parents cremated him and spread his ashes. After 1967, and in the years that followed, people started speaking out. Curtis died because of this cause and he needed to be remembered along with the other four. Since he was cremated, they put in a cenotaph — a marker without a body — in 1992. His name is rightfully now alongside the others.”

Woodmere Cemetery

Pop culture can evolve symbols in unexpected ways.

Many people are familiar with the pointed-ear Star Trek character Spock and his message to “Live Long and Prosper.” No, original actor Leonard Nimoy is not buried at Woodmere, but his Vulcan salute — where he points his hand up and parts his fingers between the ring and middle ones — is seen on several stones around the cemetery.

That hand symbol goes back much further than the sci-fi franchise that made it popular, Stockton said. As the crowd gathered around a stone for E.J. and Annie Cohen, who died in 1914 and 1893 respectively, the symbol was prominently etched at the top of their combined marker. 

“The word Cohen translates to priest in Hebrew. This hand symbol is done at the blessing at the end of the service. Leonard Nimoy, whose family was Jewish, needed to come up with a way for Spock to greet people for the show. So he suggested doing what the rabbi did when he was a kid at religious services. That’s how we got the Vulcan salute."

Woodmere Cemetery

Even when you leave a place, it stays with you.

Across the cemetery, there are national flags from across the world, flora and fauna specific to a place, holy book etchings and more. Stockton said even when people move from one place to another, what represents home stays with you.

Stockton showed the class where his marker is at Woodmere. It has the image of a dogwood bloom on it — a tree that’s native to Illinois, his home state.

Albanian headstones often show an ancient Byzantine Christian symbol of a two-headed eagle facing east and west, alongside a photo etching of an Islamic one, an Albanian mosque. Why both? “This is a people with a lot of history. Albanian identity came first, before culture and religion evolved over hundreds of years with changing leadership. During the long Communist era, this mosque served as a symbol of continuing Albanian identity. Among these Albanian graves, we see that national or ethnic identity often supersedes religious identity, or at least persists alongside it.”

There’s also a grave in the Islamic Sunni section of the cemetery that includes a heartfelt poem in Arabic that Abdallah Berry, aged 100, wrote. It was about longing for his Lebanese homeland and wanting to smell the flowers and feel the soil — but being unable to return, even in death.

Honors Program freshman Sara Moughni said the poem was sad, but touching. And she was honored to read what Mr. Berry left as part of his legacy.

As the students left Woodmere, they kept thinking about the place they just experienced — so in a way, the cemetery was a place that stayed with them.

“I walked in with a preconceived notion that cemeteries weren’t places that I’d want to visit because I did not want to be surrounded by death,” Moughni said. “Dr. Stockton showed us that cemeteries are actually full of lives lived and people representing themselves through inscriptions to share their histories with us. It’s beautiful to see so many people from different backgrounds, places and beliefs together all in one place.”

Article by Sarah Tuxbury. Below are additional images of markers at Woodmere Cemetery. Thank you to Assistant Director for Research Administration Pat Turnball for your photos.